I found your blog a few days ago and read that you travelled solo around Europe after graduating uni. I'm actually just finishing high school (sixth form here in England!), and in the four months before I start uni I'm travelling to Australia, stopping off in New Zealand, Thailand, and hopefully Hong Kong. Although there are a few people I'll be able to stay with, and a few I'll meet up with, I will be spending the vast majority of the trip on my own, and was wondering if you've got any tips about how to get the most out of solo travel. I'd also like to meet people as I go - do you have any particular ideas about how to do this? I booked my ticket, also kind of an 'in the moment' thing, and was getting a bit nervous, so it was really cool to read that you did something similar and had a great time.
Thanks so much,
Ruby, from Cambridge”
I dedicate this post to you, Ruby, and to all first-time solo travellers who are reading this. There are a lot of solo travellers out there right now, on planes, on trains, and in hostels, and every one of them took the same leap of faith you are contemplating now.
Here I will outline what I've gathered from my own solo travel experiences in the hopes of inspiring some of you to book the flight you've been dreaming of. Be not afraid of travelling solo - the only thing you should be scared of is the fact that you might never stop travelling once you start.
Book Your Ticket Now
When I booked my one-way ticket to London back in 2006, drunk off the amazing conversation I’d had with my roommate, and perhaps a little wine, I felt instantly like something big was happening. I had put into motion a plan I’d had in mind for so many years, a dream, a wish: to backpack in Europe alone. All I did was log onto expedia.com, chose my flight, put in my credit card info, and clicked “Confirm”. I read over the confirmation email, marked the date in my calendar, and from that moment on, had a date to count down to. Nothing excites me more than having a flight coming up for a new adventure.
If you’re scared, worried, and feeling totally crazy, know that I was too.
When I arrived at the airport, all packed up, guidebook in hand, I said goodbye to my parents and realized I was on my own. I was actually starting my journey – alone. Waiting at the departure gate, I read my book and stared at the other travellers, wondering if anyone else was also alone. I was too shy to ask at that point though, so I was left with my imaginings of the other people.
As soon as we landed at Gatwick, I made friends with another traveller while waiting to pick up my bag. He asked me if I was going downtown, and we shared a cab into the city.This brings me smoothly to my next piece of advice…
Talk to Other Travellers
You’re in a new city,and you don’t really know the ropes. You might have a place in mind to visit,but you’re not really sure if you want to go there alone. Lucky for you,there’s an army of solo travellers just like you sitting down for the free hostel breakfast, and this is your chance to find a friend and travel companion for the day. Ask others where they plan on going that day, and let them know what places you have in mind. If you have overlapping plans, before you can ask to join, the other will probably invite you to come along. If you're feeling shy, use my tactic for meeting people, and just pretend that you're already friends with whoever you're meeting. That way, you speed through all of the formalities and can get to the real conversations.
Travellers are some of the most easy going and friendliest people I’ve ever encountered, and they tend to treat fellow travellers as insta-friends. Meeting all these friendly people brings me to the next tip for solo travels…
Talk to the Hostel Staff
Not sure where the nearest ATM is? Wanna find a movie theatre? Lost your adapter? The staff at hostels are a great resource, as most of them are experienced travellers themselves. They can offer lots of good ideas for things to do when you arrive in a new city, and some hostels even offer free daily walking tours of the cities. If you're not sure where to eat, hostel staff can usually provide you with an extensive list of local choices, and they might even invite you to join them at their regular spot. If you want company, tell the staff you're travelling alone and they'll be happy to guide you in the right direction to meet some people to hang out with. Once you find your groove, take this next piece of advice and run...
Say Yes to Everything (within reason)
One of the greatest joys of solo travel is the ability to be spontaneous, and this means being able to say “yes” to unplanned invitations. At your hostel, when you start talking with other travellers, you’ll hear about places you never knew existed until that moment, and you might be invited to tag along and visit somewhere that you’d never planned on going. Even if you think the activity isn’t really your style, (like me agreeing to join a pub-crawl in Berlin when all I really wanted to do was sit in the park), by saying yes, you give yourself a chance to have a new experience. Isn’t that what all this travel business is about, anyway? Onto my next tip…
Keep a Journal
Travelling alone can be a very reflective time in your life, and many people say they travel to “figure out what they’re doing”. Although you might not get the answer to that question, you will certainly have a lot of time to think. Taking a train alone,having a meal alone, or even waking up in a hostel after everyone’s checked out: you are surrounded with as much alone time as you seek. I always like to keep a diary so that when I have an epiphany about something, or even just want to make a note about the name of the amazing food I ate for dinner, I can. To look back on old travel journals is a great pleasure, and sitting with a journal can be a conversation starter with other travellers. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been sitting in a hostel bar writing in my diary when someone comes up and asks what I’m writing.
“I never travel without my diary.One should always have
something sensational to read on the train.”
- Oscar Wilde
Here's a little anecdotal tale in the spirit of journalling and Oscar Wilde...
Once when I was taking an overnight train somewhere in Germany, I met three American travellers. We chatted about our routes, and naturally I pulled out my diary when the conversation died down. At that point, the conversation livened up again as they all became very curious about my diary. After a while, I eventually handed it over for them to devour. They loved reading of my escapades, and it was fun for me to see how others reacted to the way I'd journaled my experiences. I really should look back on those diary entries… but first, the next tip!
Machu Picchu, Peru
Trust Your Gut & Be Smart
The running theme here is that travellers are pretty nice people, and of course this is a generalization, but it is one that I have made throughout my travels in 45 different countries, and one that I hold to be mostly true. I believe trusting in people, both locals and other travellers, allows me to relax when I travel, and it helps me be spontaneous and have more enriching travel experiences. However, no matter what you might be doing, always listen to that little voice inside of you. If something feels wrong, it probably is. Since you’re travelling alone, no one else is going to take responsibility for you if something goes wrong. Be smart – you’re ultimately the only one who can take care of yourself if you need to think straight. I hope I’m stating the obvious when I say don’t get plastered drunk with a group of people you don’t know, don’t take drugs from anyone, and definitely don’t leave your belongings with a trusting stranger. Lock up your valuables (passport, money, credit cards, computer if you have one, hard drive, etc.) in the lockers provided by hostels, and you’ll feel much more at ease knowing your things are safe. Now that I’ve lectured you about safety, let’s get back to the fun stuff…
Cahuita, Costa Rica
Don’t Plan Too Much
When I travel, I usually have a general route in mind for the cities and sites I want to visit. The way I find what I want to see varies, but a fun way to get ready for a trip is to Google map the place you are visiting, and click to view the images. You can click around and see street views of the places you are interested in, as well as discover amazing churches, landscapes, and things you never knew were there. So, do some research and get excited about seeing certain places… but don’t stick to your plan like glue. Travels rarely go exactly as planned, as trains and buses leave off schedule, certain hostels are closed for the season, and sometimes you just change your mind once you get somewhere. Leave room in your plans for change, as you might arrive somewhere and fall in love with the hostel dog and just want to stay there and chill out for a while. You want to give yourself options when you travel, so my advice is to always keep things open… and that’s our last piece of advice here!
In 2006, before I set out for my first solo travels in Europe, I sat in the passenger seat as my dad drove me to the airport. I had packed everything carefully, and I was ready to go. We talked along the way, and as we approached the airport, my dad offered this timeless advice:
“When you’re on the open road, be open.”
This was the first sentence I wrote in my diary of my Europe trip, and I’ve never forgotten it. There is no other time in your life when you are as free to do what you like as when you travel alone. Tired? Sleep in. Hungry? Eat another lunch. Don’t want to take a night bus tonight? Stay another day.
You are the master of your own destiny when you travel alone. To make sure you get the most out of the experience, be open to the places you go, and the people you meet. For me, when I look back on my favourite moments in my travels, many of them involve the amazing friends I travelled with. But, there are also many special memories and experiences that I had when I was alone...
Sitting in a park in Cusco, watching kids play in a fountain. Eating a giant gooey chocolate waffle in the streets of Brugges. Sharing a loaf of bread with some kids in Angkor Wat. Being asked where in Paris I lived when walking in Champ de Mars. Taking a selfie in front of Big Ben. Going for the same café con leche at the same café for 2 weeks straight in Santiago. Crying on a train from Berlin to Amsterdam. Coming back to my hostel bed in Warsaw to find a note from a fellow traveller with whom I hadn’t swapped emails yet. Memorizing the names of school children in Santa Cruz...
And I wouldn’t have these memories any other way.
Travelling alone is scary at the beginning, but as soon as you realize you are completely in control of everything you do, you quickly learn to love the freedom. Give in to your temptations to be on the road alone - you never know what's drawing you travel, or who you might meet, until you're out there. Nothing quite compares with the feeling of sitting on a plane full of strangers, quietly bubbling with joy inside knowing you're doing it - you're finally travelling alone!
Join the rest of us solo backpackers hanging out on couches and wandering around airports and bus stations. We are waiting for the next solo traveller to share a taxi with...
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